Top Chef Seattle, Episode 1: Only the Strong Survive the Test Kitchens

Chef Lizzie Binder gets lost in Tom Colicchio’s eyes.

Top Chef returned last night for its tenth season. Twenty-one chefs would be competing for an initial place in the competition. I find this part of the series particularly gut-wrenching as some talented folks are going home before the real fun has begun!

The action opens with Tom Colicchio at craft in Los Angeles. Chef Colicchio is both completely charming and utterly terrifying. I fear that the folks trying to impress him will have to try a bit harder than the others auditioning for Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, or Hugh Acheson. The chefs will have to work actual service in the craft kitchen —  and either hold it together or fall apart. It’s tough to come into a strange kitchen, but that is actually what a lot of chefs do every time they look for a new job. So, at this point in their careers, they should be able to come in, assess, adapt, and impress.

First up, 54-year-old John Tesar of Spoon Bar & Kitchen in Dallas does not display anything that would lead you to believe he has a reputation as a hothead, as Colicchio says he does. Tesar has had a great deal of success, while also dealing with some personal issues, but he is very respectful in the kitchen, doing his tasks “the ‘craft’ way.” He’s the first to get a Top Chef jacket – and simultaneously has “3,000 pounds lifted off my back!”

He’s been called the most hated chef in Dallas. Will he stake the same claim on this season of Top Chef?

Lizzie Binder, Executive Chef of Bar Bambino in San Francisco, is from South Africa, has a bit of a crush on Tom (who doesn’t?!), and is a mom. She’s also wholly guileless and works enthusiastically and efficiently. She, too, gets a Top Chef jacket.

Anthony Gray, Executive Chef at Southern Art and Bourbon Bar in Atlanta, has an interesting approach to butchery, preferring to use a paring knife instead of a boning knife or a chef knife. He’s kindly and obviously talented, but he doesn’t hit his stride in the craft kitchen and is sent back to the ATL.

Jorel Pierce, the mustachioed Chef de Cuisine of Denver’s Euclid Hall specializes in butchery, but, unfortunately, he misunderstands Tom’s instructions for taking down chickens and over-salts a beurre fondue. I’m bummed he didn’t get a jacket because his ‘stache is spectacular.

Micah Fields, Executive Chef at The Standard Hotel in Los Angeles skipped over being a sous chef, going from line cook to executive chef in one fell swoop. He’s not great at filleting fish, but he moves with confidence around the kitchen, easily snagging a Top Chef jacket.

“If you’re missing something, I ate it.”

In Las Vegas, at the Palazzo Hotel (I just stayed there and it’s lovely, in case you were wondering), Emeril Lagasse puts another group of hopefuls through the mill at Table 10. They’ve got one hour to make soup. It’s one of the things Emeril judges a restaurant by, and he wants it to have structure, seasoning, and depth. Ready? Go!

Jeffrey Jew, Chef de Cuisine at Blackbyrd, in Washington, D.C. is making a watermelon-tomato gazpacho. Emeril wonders if he can chill the gazpacho quickly enough. Turns out Jeffrey can – he gets the first Top Chef coat.

Kristin Kish, Sous Chef at Stir in Boston, and besties with fellow competitor and spoon-tattoo-wearer Stephanie, makes an English pea broth and sails right into the Top Chef jacket fitting room.

Stephanie Cmar, also Sous Chef at Stir in Boston, and bestie to the aforementioned Kristin, makes a light cauliflower soup that is too light on the cauliflower flavor. She is sent packing. I wonder if her friendship with Kristin will survive!

Josh Valentine, Executive Chef of Divine Swine in Minneapolis, has a pregnant wife at home. I’ve got to say, these Top Cheftestants have some nice wives. If I were expecting, I would pitch a fit if my husband left town for that long. Who would bring me pickles and ice cream?!? Anyway, Josh makes a roasted corn and coconut soup that’s a little sweet but has a nice chile finish, and he’s in.

Tina Bourbeau, Executive Chef/Product Development at FreshDirect, makes a very interesting-looking seafood and chorizo soup that’s different than the purees everyone else serves up. Alas, it is too garlicky and she is a left jacket-less.

Behold — the only omelet that looks like an omelet, courtesy of Chef Chrissy Cambra.

Wolfgang Puck, who just may have the most charming accent in the world outside of Roger Federer, is putting aspiring cheftestants to the test at Cut by Wolfgang Puck in Beverly Hills. He has them make a culinary-school standard – an omelet that must look perfect. It’s pretty simple once you know the technique, but it’s clear that most of these chefs haven’t made an omelet in at least a decade, if not longer.

Carla Pellegrino, Chef/Owner at Bratalian Neopolitan Cantina, and formerly the chef at Rao’s (and formerly the wife of its owner), is very animated in the kitchen, to the chagrin of some of her co-competitors, but she puts out a semi-decent omelet with mushrooms and onions and receives a jacket.

Eliza Gavin, Chef/Owner, 221 South Oak in Telluride, heeds Wolfgang’s advice to add some steak to her omelet. They are at Cut, after all. Not sure why no one else used red meat. Eliza heeds his advice and gets a jacket.

Chrissy Cambra, Chef at Bar Pastoral in Chicago, and someone actually familiar with a making omelets turns out the finest looking one, a twist on a Filipino torta. It could use some salt, but not enough that she’s sent packing. She slips into a Top Chef coat.

Tyler Ward, Executive Chef/Culinary Director of Elway’s Restaurant Group in Denver, gets extremely lucky. His omelet is brown and wonky looking. He tries – and fails — to cover its appearance with greens, but he is saved by crispy potatoes and bold flavors.

Kuniko Yagi, Executive Chef of Comme Ca in West Hollywood, proclaims, “I want to drink the coffee in Seattle.” She’s completely adorable and generous, ignoring Tyler referring to her as origami (!). She serves up a very beautiful omelet and gets one petite Top Chef jacket.

Daniel O’Brien, Chef/Owner at Seasonal Pantry in Washington, D.C., is derailed by an omelet slick with bacon grease. Puck is not pleased by the presentation, and O’Brien is sent back home.

Chef Bart Vandaele assures Hugh Acheson that he won’t be wearing a suit of armor in the Top Chef kitchen.

Finally, Hugh Acheson is judging the final group of cheftestants at Empire State South in Atlanta. He gives the participants 45 minutes to create a beautiful salad. Salad, he believes, can show off a chef’s true skills and beautiful ingredients at the same time.

Brooke Williamson, Chef/Owner of Hudson House in Redondo Beach, California, stuns her co-competitors when her kale salad with Brussels sprouts, watercress, and fried kale nets her the very first Top Chef jacket.

Sheldon Simeon, Executive Chef at Star Noodle in Maui, has never lived outside of Hawaii except for a brief stint working at Disney several years back, so he’s itching to get to Seattle. He’s worked his way up from dishwasher to executive chef in 10 years, and his fried Brussels sprout salad works him right into a Top Chef coat.

OpenTable fave Bart Vandaele, Chef-Owner of Belga Café in Washington, D.C., is a knight, but he doesn’t wear a suit of armor, in case you were wondering. He makes a “big salad” of lobster and asparagus, and he gets his Top Chef jacket. Whew!

Gina Keatley, Founder/Head Chef at Nourishing USA, comes off as a bit high-strung. Her so-called seasonal salad is called weighty and overdone by Acheson, but what seals her fate is when she begs Hugh, “Don’t make me cry.” No jacket for you, Gina.

Danyelle McPherson, Sous Chef at The Grape in Dallas, is an affable and focused Stephan Pyles alumni. She makes a grilled watermelon and tomato that is a little bit too Texas for Acheson, but which earns her a Top Chef jacket nonetheless.

We’ll tune in next week to see who bonds with whom, who the villains will be, and who will emerge as an obvious frontrunner. Stay tuned!


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